The European Union: Institutions

Saturday, 8 July 2017 - 03:00 pm (CET/MEZ) Berlin | Author/Destination:
Category/Kategorie: Editorial, European Union, General

The Politics of the European Union are different from other organisations and states due to the unique nature of the European Union (EU). The EU is similar to a confederation, where many policy areas are federalised into common institutions capable of making law; however the EU does not, unlike most states, control foreign policy, defence policy or the majority of direct taxation policies (the EU does limit the level of variation allowed for VAT). These areas are primarily under the control of the EU’s member states although a certain amount of structured co-operation and coordination takes place in these areas. For the EU to take substantial actions in these areas, all Member States must give their consent. EU laws that override national laws are more numerous than in historical confederations; however the EU is legally restricted from making law outside its remit or where it is no more appropriate to do so at a national or local level (subsidiarity) when acting outside its exclusive competencies. The principle of subsidiarity does not apply to areas of exclusive competence.

The common institutions mix the intergovernmental and supranational (similar to federal) aspects of the EU. The EU treaties declare the EU to be based on representative democracy, and direct elections take place to the European Parliament. The Parliament, together with the Council, form the legislative arm of the EU. The Council is composed of national governments, thus representing the intergovernmental nature of the EU. Laws are proposed by the European Commission which is appointed by and accountable to the Parliament and Council although it has very few executive powers. Although direct elections take place every five years, there are no cohesive political parties in the national sense. Instead, there are alliances of ideologically associated parties who sit and vote together in Parliament. The two largest parties are the European People’s Party (centre-right) and the Party of European Socialists (centre-left) with the former forming the largest group in Parliament since 1999. As well as there being left and right dividing lines in European politics, there are also divides between those for and against European integration (Pro-Europeanism and Euroscepticism) which shapes the continually changing nature of the EU which adopts successive reforming treaties. The latter is stronger in northern Europe, especially the United Kingdom, and some member states are less integrated than others (Opt-outs). The primary institutions of the European Union are the European Commission, the European Council, the Council of the European Union (Council) and the European Parliament. The ordinary legislative procedure, applies to nearly all EU policy areas. Under the procedure, the Commission presents a proposal to Parliament and the Council. They then send amendments to the Council which can either adopt the text with those amendments or send back a “common position”. That proposal may either be approved or further amendments may be tabled by the Parliament. If the Council does not approve those, then a “Conciliation Committee” is formed. The Committee is composed of the Council members plus an equal number of MEPs who seek to agree a common position. Once a position is agreed, it has to be approved by Parliament again by an absolute majority. There are other special procedures used in sensitive areas which reduce the power of Parliament.

European Parliament
The European Parliament shares the legislative and budgetary authority of the Union with the Council. Its 766 members are elected every five years by universal suffrage and sit according to political allegiance. It represents all European Citizens in the EU’s legislative process, in contrast to the Council, which represents the Member States. Despite forming one of the two legislative chambers of the Union, it has weaker powers than the Council in some limited areas, and does not have legislative initiative. It does, however, have powers over the Commission which the Council does not. The powers of the Parliament have increased substantially over the years, and in nearly all areas it now has equal power to the Council.

European Council
The European Council is the group of heads of state or government of the EU member states. It meets four times a year to define the Union’s policy agenda and give impetus to integration. The President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, is the person responsible for chairing and driving forward the work of the institution, which has been described as the highest political body of the European Union.

Council of the European Union
The Council of the European Union (informally known as the Council of Ministers or just the Council) is a body holding legislative and some limited executive powers and is thus the main decision making body of the Union. Its Presidency rotates between the states every six months. The Council is composed of twenty-eight national ministers (one per state). However the Council meets in various forms depending upon the topic. For example, if agriculture is being discussed, the Council will be composed of each national minister for agriculture. They represent their governments and are accountable to their national political systems. Votes are taken either by majority or unanimity with votes allocated according to population.

European Commission
The European Commission is composed of one appointee from each state, currently twenty-eight, but is designed to be independent of national interests. The body is responsible for drafting all law of the European Union and has a monopoly over legislative initiative. It also deals with the day-to-day running of the Union and has a duty to uphold the law and treaties (in this role it is known as the “Guardian of the Treaties”). The Commission is led by a President who is nominated by the Council (in practice the European Council) and approved by Parliament. The remaining twenty-seven Commissioners are nominated by member-states, in consultation with the President, and has their portfolios assigned by the President. The Council then adopts this list of nominee-Commissioners. The Council’s adoption of the Commission is not an area which requires the decision to be unanimous, their acceptance is arrived at according to the rules for qualified majority voting. The European Parliament then interviews and casts its vote upon the Commissioners. The interviews of individual nominees are conducted separately, in contrast to Parliament’s vote of approval which must be cast on the Commission as a whole without the ability to accept or reject individual Commissioners. Once approval has been obtained from the Parliament the Commissioners can take office. The current president is Jean-Claude Juncker (EPP); his commission was elected in 2014.

Court of Justice of the European Union
The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) is the chief judicial authority of the European Union and oversees the uniform application and interpretation of European Union law, in co-operation with the national judiciary of the member states. CJEU also resolves legal disputes between national governments and EU institutions, and may take action against EU institutions on behalf of individuals, companies or organisations whose rights have been infringed. CJEU consists of two major courts:

  • the Court of Justice, informally known as European Court of Justice (ECJ) which hears applications from national courts for preliminary rulings, annulment and appeals. It consists of one judge from each EU member country, as well as 11 advocates general.
  • the General Court, which hears applications for annulment from individuals, companies and, less commonly, national governments (focusing on competition law, State aid, trade, agriculture and trade marks). It is made up of 47 judges, which will be increased to 56 in 2019.

European Central Bank
The European Central Bank is the central bank for the euro and administers monetary policy of the eurozone, which consists of 19 EU member states and is one of the largest currency areas in the world. It is one of the world’s most important central banks and is one of the seven institutions of the European Union listed in the Treaty on European Union (TEU). The capital stock of the bank is owned by the central banks of all 28 EU member states. The Treaty of Amsterdam established the bank in 1998. As of 2015 the President of the ECB is Mario Draghi. The primary objective of the ECB, mandated in Article 2 of the Statute of the ECB, is to maintain price stability within the Eurozone. Its basic tasks, set out in Article 3 of the Statute, are to set and implement the monetary policy for the Eurozone, to conduct foreign exchange operations, to take care of the foreign reserves of the European System of Central Banks and operation of the financial market infrastructure under the TARGET2 payments system and the technical platform (currently being developed) for settlement of securities in Europe (TARGET2 Securities). The ECB has, under Article 16 of its Statute, the exclusive right to authorise the issuance of euro banknotes. Member states can issue euro coins, but the amount must be authorised by the ECB beforehand. The ECB is governed by European law directly, but its set-up resembles that of a corporation in the sense that the ECB has shareholders and stock capital. Its capital is €11 billion held by the national central banks of the member states as shareholders. The initial capital allocation key was determined in 1998 on the basis of the states’ population and GDP, but the capital key has been adjusted. Shares in the ECB are not transferable and cannot be used as collateral.

European Court of Auditors
Despite its name, the Court has no judicial functions. It is rather a professional external investigatory audit agency. The primary role of the court is to externally check if the budget of the European Union has been implemented correctly, in that EU funds have been spent legally and with sound management. In doing so, the court checks the paperwork of all persons handling any income or expenditure of the Union and carries out spot checks. The court is bound to report any problems in the Court’s reports for the attention of other states and institutions, these reports include its general annual report as well as specific and special reports on certain bodies and issues. The Court’s decision is the basis for the European Commission decisions; for example, when the Court found problems in the management of EU funds in the regions of England, the Commission suspended funds to those regions and prepared to fine those who did not come back up to acceptable standards. In this role, the Court has to remain independent yet remain in touch with the other institutions; for example, a key role is the presentation of the Court’s annual report to the European Parliament. It is based on this report that the Parliament makes its decision on whether or not to sign off the European Commission’s handling of the budget for that year. The Parliament notably refused to do this in 1984 and 1999, the latter case forced the resignation of the Santer Commission. The Court, if satisfied, also sends assurances to the Council and Parliament that the taxpayers’ money is being properly used, and the Court must be consulted before the adoption of any legislation with financial implications, but its opinion is never binding.

Read more on europa.eu – EU institutions and other bodies, VOLT Europa, United Europe and Pulse of Europe. Photo by Wikimedia Commons.


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